Losing the Lottery

Sam Joynt
March 19, 2009

The 2003-04 season began just like any other, with each of the 30 NBA teams hopeful for a playoff berth. Some were seeking championships, others division titles, and some were just hoping to eclipse the .500 mark. Needless to say, however, everyone wanted a spot in the postseason.

Despite the universal optimism, it also ended like any other. Only 16 of the 30 teams qualified for the playoffs, rendering the remaining 14 lottery bound; a bittersweet reward for their sub-par achievements, but a reward nonetheless. The lottery is a platform for the future, where a sewer-dwelling franchise can change its fate through the addition of one of the young and talented superstars of tomorrow.

That being said, while the talent may be aplenty, selecting that player who can help your team the most becomes a difficult task. The 2004 lottery provides as good an example as any of how the players chosen can end up being more bitter than sweet for the teams who believed in their abilities.

With the Madness of March virtually upon us, and a burly 6’10” post-player seemingly head and shoulders above all of the other lottery hopefuls, it seems only fitting that we examine the failings of the similarly structured 2004 draft, where Dwight Howard was selected first overall and where the bulk of the other picks were misused.

Of the 14 lottery selections, more than half can be interpreted as failed picks by the team’s who drafted them.

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Shaun Livingston – Drafted 4th overall by Los Angeles Clippers

Through no fault of his own Livingston’s promising young career with the Clippers was cut short by a traumatic knee injury. Still, with his potential unreached and the Clippers franchise left with nothing to show for such a high selection the Livingston pick can be chalked up as a loss by the organization.

Devin Harris – Drafted 5th overall by the Dallas Mavericks

Unlike the rest of the picks on this list, Harris was actually the correct selection for the Mavs at fifth overall. He makes the list however, not for his inability, but rather for Dallas’ impatience that ultimately resulted in his being traded to New Jersey. Dallas elected to go with experience over potential, and that decision has made another team the benefactor of Harris’s explosiveness and scoring prowess.

Josh Childress – Drafted 6th overall by the Atlanta Hawks

Childress’s contribution to the team was slow, but that’s not why he makes the list. He makes the list due to Atlanta’s inability to secure his services this past summer. Their inability to begin negotiations in a timely manner, led to Childress’ pursuit of other offers, which ultimately landed him in Greece and negated the restricted nature of his free agency. By allowing their former lottery pick to ply his trade elsewhere, and by receiving absolutely nothing in return, Atlanta effectively wasted the sixth overall pick.

Rafael Araujo – Drafted 8th overall by the Toronto Raptors

Perhaps the worst decision Rob Babcock ever made (and that’s saying a lot), Araujo squandered an opportunity that was his for the taking. His skills simply weren’t lottery worthy, and it was soon revealed that the big Brazilian had absolutely no place in the NBA. Bryan Colangelo was somehow able to convince Utah that he was worth trading Kris Humphries for, but by and large the Raptors made terrible use of such a high selection.

Luke Jackson – Drafted 10th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers

Jackson is another in a long line of great college scorers who weren’t athletic enough for the NBA. He never really brought much to the Cavs, and has since bounced around the league, enjoying a series of stints at the end of the bench.

Robert Swift – Drafted 12th overall by the Seattle Sonics

Injuries have been a major factor in his lack of development, but Seattle’s vision of a dominant young center seemed to be as unrealistic as believing that they weren’t going to relocate. His long red hair remains his greatest contribution to the NBA.

Sebastian Telfair – Drafted 13th overall by the Portland Trailblazers

Telfair simply came to Portland at the wrong time. The Jailblazers image was in full force, and a series of off the court issues type cast him into the very mold that the franchise was trying to move away from. He now runs the show in Minnesota, but that does little to help the team that drafted him.

Kris Humphries – Drafted 14th overall by the Utah Jazz

Humphries makes this list for two reasons. First of all, the Jazz thought so little of him that they were willing to make the swap with Toronto for Araujo, and secondly because of the plethora of talent that was still available once the lottery ended.

Scouting has to be a concern when you consider that players including Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith and Jameer Nelson were all selected in the top 20 but couldn’t crack the lottery, especially over duds like Araujo and Swift.

And with Kevin Martin, Delonte West, Tony Allen, Sasha Vujacic and Beno Udrih all going in the last ten picks of the first round, it’s hard to understand how the lottery teams could dissipate an opportunity to improve their team and start to level the competitive imbalance that consistently exists throughout the association, solely due to insufficient scouting.

The drafting of size over potential argument seems to be the most obvious argument, but with Anderson Varejao having not been selected until the 31st pick that argument is quickly voided, as he, Jefferson, and even 30th overall selection David Harrison would have been vast improvements over Araujo, Swift and Humphries.

With current league starters Chris Duhon and Trevor Ariza also going in the second round there’s little room to argue for the other miss-selections as well.

At the end of the day, hindsight’s 20/20. That being said, with a similar talent field entering this summer’s draft, teams can use the 2004 lottery as a lesson; taking comfort in the fact that talents like Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Jameer Nelson and Kevin Martin will be theirs for the taking, they simply just have to make the right pick. The old best talent available adage might be the place to start.

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The Author:

Sam Joynt